The blazes may be the first step in a hellish downward spiral.
- Never before has so much of the Amazon rainforest been on fire.
- The fires are largely set by humans clearing areas for development.
- The fires may push us into a vicious, irreversible climate pattern.
There's a reason the Amazon rainforest is referred to as the "Lungs of the World": It accounts for 17 percent of the carbon dioxide absorbed by the world's trees and produces 20 percent of the oxygen we breathe.
At the moment, though, the Amazon is on fire. This year alone, Brazil research agency INPE has recorded more than 73,000 fires there, an increase of 83 percent since just last year. And we're still a month away from the peak of the area's driest season, which doesn't abate until November. As of last Thursday, August 22, there were about 2,500 active fires.
Climate experts are concerned the Amazon fires could be a harbinger, or even a trigger, of a "dieback" scenario. If so, the Amazon would no longer help offset climate change by absorbing greenhouse gas, but, instead, begin producing massive amounts of Co2 as it burns — this wouldn't just make climate change worse, but it would cause the forest itself to become locked in a vicious cycle, where it becomes increasingly dry and more readily flammable.
Experts fear we may be entering such a vicious cycle and that it could accelerate into a doomsday scenario for humankind.
Why the Amazon is burning: Timber and meat
The prime driver for the historical deforestation of the Amazon has been the clearing of forests by loggers and the subsequent allocation of the naked land for cattle grazing in service of the global meat industry. Eating less meat is a strategic goal that the world needs to work toward more aggressively — starting, well, yesterday. The WWF asserts that 17 percent of the rainforest has been lost over the last 50 years, some 18.7 million acres per year at a rate of 27 soccer fields a minute.
Such clearing of trees opens up the forest canopy, drying out the understory and the edges of growth areas, according to a troubling essay in The Conversation. Its authors explain how "normally fire-proof rainforests become flammable."
Prior to the recent surge in fires, rainforest destruction had been on the decline thanks to growing awareness of the Amazon's importance — a PSA promoted by groups such as Save the Rainforest, as well as through stricter local regulations. However, it's been picking up again lately. São Paolo got a wakeup call last week when a cold front, some clouds, and smoke from the burning turned day into night.
NASA's image of fires in the Amazon from August 15-22, 2019. Image source: NASA Earth Observatory
Why the Amazon is burning: Industrialization
The return to excessive rainforest exploitation is also a result of the ascension of Jair Bolsonaro to Brazil's presidency. One of the current crop of climate-denying, right-wing politicians rising to powerful positions around the world, Bolsanaro campaigned on opening the Amazon to more farming and mining, and has been weakening environmental protections since taking office. His pro-development stance has reportedly emboldened Amazon farmers who use burning to clear tracts of land — a sizable portion of the current conflagrations is attributed to this practice. Bolsonaro has also been disturbingly clear in his negative view of the remaining indigenous tribes being displaced, and who once numbered in the millions.
Bolsonaro has also claimed that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were setting the fires to embarrass him, though he later backtracked, claiming he had never accused the NGOs. According to Greenpeace, his government has gone so far as to block international aid intended to help put out the fires. In late August, he finally relented somewhat and sent the Brazilian military to the area to fight the blaze.
Image source: Bloomberg / Contributor / Getty
Why the Amazon is burning: Climate change
The deliberate blazes set by Amazon developers, loggers, and farmers is unquestionably being aggravated by global climate change: The rainforest is drier now. There have been three "droughts of the century" lately, in 2005, 2010, and from 2015 to 2016. This feels alarmingly like the first phase of the dieback scenario.
Even without a dieback, a proliferation of fires may be the New Normal as the Earth heats up at an accelerating rate. While some advocate the planting of new trees as a way of slowing down the worsening of the situation, it's obvious that we may eventually find ourselves providing more dry kindling.
According to images taken from satellites, the Amazonas state of Brazil is the most affected area, though Rondônia and Mato Grosso are also battling fires.
The fires in Brazil and the dispersal of their smoke.
Image source: European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts
What you can do
Aside from watching from afar in horror, it's difficult to know what to do. Charity Navigator has assembled a list of five of the best organizations to which you can contribute to help save and restore this area so critical to our own survival:
The Brazilian government has been trying to answer this very question in its ever-growing prison population, which has doubled since the year 2000.
In 1953, long before shots of ayahuasca were paired with cacao elixirs at Burning Man Decompression parties, William Burroughs traveled around South America in search of the mystical beverage called yagé. Though Burroughs is remembered predominantly as a heroin junkie, he documented not only the hallucinogenic qualities of ayahuasca, but also the scientific possibilities of this intriguing blend of vines and leaves.
Ayahuasca was first “discovered” by Western science in 1851, when the Victorian naturalist Richard Spruce made his way around the Amazon (Burroughs later read his work). It would take the “father of ethnobotany,” Richard Evans Schultes, to bring ayahuasca to mainstream awareness. Ironically, perhaps, Burroughs and Schultes, both Harvard graduates, ran into one another in Colombia in 1953 while documenting yagé.
Burroughs never achieved the scientific results Schultes did. While the Beat writer focused on a book (eventually downgraded to an article) on the science, he was known for dramatic statements like, “NO ONE IN HIS SENSES WOULD EVER TRUST ‘THE UNIVERSE.’” A powerful observation in his letters to pal Allen Ginsberg, but not getting him published in Nature anytime soon.
Interestingly, when traveling through the Putumayo region of Colombia, Burroughs predicted a global ayahuasca boom. Today eco-luxe tourism is rampant in the Amazon, with rock star shamans grappling with sexual abuse accusations. In Los Angeles, yoga teachers who’ve drank the brew feel justified in labelling themselves “plant medicine shamans” after circumventing the rigorous dieta and apprenticeship process. With so much spiritual capitalism occurring around this drink, what benefits can actually be gleaned?
The Brazilian government has been trying to answer this very question in its ever-growing prison population, which has doubled since the turn of the century. In 2013, volunteer therapists working with Acuda, a prisoner’s rights group based in Port Velho, began integrating yoga, reiki, and ayahuasca ceremonies as part of a wide-scale rehabilitation effort to help the half-million-plus inmates scattered across the nation.
While the brew is less studied than other entheogens, early reports are positive. One small study in Brazil saw a meaningful reduction in depression in volunteers. A larger follow-up saw a 64 percent success rate in treating depression. Another study focused on its potential application in treating addiction and other “diseases of civilization.” Some speculate that ayahuasca might have even wider-ranging applications:
The plant has shown potential to help people recover from trauma, PTSD, addiction and depression, as well as cancers and other afflictions.
The larger question of ayahuasca’s scientific and spiritual applications was entertained in the 2010 documentary, DMT: The Spirit Molecule, which has been viewed millions of times on Netflix, Youtube, and other streaming services (and which I served as music supervisor for). Parsing credible science from anecdote is always challenging, yet the transformative effects of ayahuasca are well documented.
Context matters. Last week I wrote about how mindfulness meditation might be dangerous for prisoners, but thus far ayahuasca seems beneficial for helping prisoners reflect on their crimes and, by extension, reducing recidivism rates.
This treatment is not universally welcome. One Brazilian resident, whose daughter was killed by one such prisoner, wonders how the murderer is allowed to enter the jungle to drink sacred medicine. The bigger question here involves the role prisons play in society: punishment or rehabilitation?
This question is particularly pertinent in the United States, which holds more prisoners than any other nation. While no one is advocating that prison should be pleasurable, some view it as an opportunity to prepare inmates for reintegration into society. Many facilities accomplish the opposite:
Prisoners in supermax units experience extremely high levels of anxiety and other negative emotions. When released—often without any “decompression” period in lower-security facilities—they have few of the social or occupational skills necessary to succeed in the outside world.
Others believe prison serves one purpose: justice. One libertarian argument even states that punishing prisoners is more merciful than trying to rehabilitate them:
Justice requires punishment, punishment must be deserved, and just desert requires a punishment in proportion to the crime committed—neither too much, nor too little. This is far preferable to the senselessly draconian sentences and the perpetual monitoring and post-imprisonment sanctions subject to the whims of a grimly humanitarian state.
The latter argument is more nuanced than that singular quote, though that sentiment does conclude the writer’s overall idea, which boils down to this: Are we trying to help criminals or keep them as far away as possible? Do we turn the other cheek or demand an eye, a head, an entire body for an eye? The prison system is broken. Do we want to try to fix it, or let it continue on the corporatized retributive path it’s been leading for decades?
At least in terms of ayahasuca, I can respond thus: on the three occasions I’ve sat for ceremony I’ve left recharged, reflective, and grateful. Though the most intense psychoactive experiences I’ve had—more so than psilocybin, LSD, MDMA, mescaline, and peyote—I never felt anxious. The ceremony provides an opportunity to reflect over your life; if you don’t like what’s simmering below the surface, chances are the ritual might result in existential duress.
But coming to terms with what’s inside of you is more transformative than ignoring it, which is, from my studies, conversations, and experiences, the true power of ayahuasca. That this brew might help alter the course of a life gone astray is enough incentive to integrate it into the prison population. The medicine is social, spiritual, and therapeutic, but most importantly, it provides a human approach to aiding others. If the science continues leading in this direction, we should follow it.
Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
In a world driven by technological progress, many impoverished communities are bucking the trend by successfully turning to "low-tech" and unorthodox treatments.
Tucked away in northeast Brazil's seaside city of Fortaleza, an unusual medical advancement has been discovered. As reported by STAT, researchers and physicians based out of the region's burn center, the José Frota Institute, have begun testing the use of fish skin as dressings for patients suffering from second- and third-degree burns.
Throughout history, we've seen that windows of acute desperation have produced some of the most remarkable medical breakthroughs. The physically grievous casualties generated during World War II forced advancements in the purification, stabilization, and mass production of penicillin. During the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, researchers turned to a former cancer drug, AZT, to successfully treat the decade's most fearsome disease.
Today, Brazil's medical community faces a uniquely desperate situation. The country's three operational skin banks are only able to meet approximately one percent of the nation's needs. Moreover, alternatives to human skin, such as pig skin and synthetic skin substitutes—materials commonly available in the United States—are virtually unobtainable.
Unlike their American counterparts, material and supply shortages have forced some Brazilian burn centers to deviate from the standard medical practice which advocates for early skin grafts, instead being relegated to using traditional gauze-and-silver sulfadiazine cream dressings. While such a method of treatment is time-tested and effective in preventing infection in burn wounds, the dressings necessitate daily and excruciatingly painful changes, which can delay recovery.
Enter fish skin—namely that of tilapia. What was once simply thrown in the trash after harvesting has now become a critical therapeutic agent. After undergoing a thorough cleaning process, the sterilized tilapia skins are applied directly to the wound. For superficial second-degree burns, the skins are left in place until the burn naturally scars over, more severe burns with deeper wound cavities require a few changes over the course of several weeks. While the testing of this technique has been somewhat limited, the consensus amongst attending physicians is that the use of tilapia skin bandages reduces healing time and significantly decreases pain levels in patients.
The project's lead plastic surgeon, Dr. Edmar Maciel, commented on the unexpected superior healing properties of tilapia skin, stating, “We got a great surprise when we saw that the amount of collagen proteins, types 1 and 3, which are very important for scarring, exist in large quantities in tilapia skin, even more than in human skin and other skins. Another factor we discovered is that the amount of tension, of resistance in tilapia skin is much greater than in human skin. Also the amount of moisture.”
While experts argue that we're unlikely to see such fish skin bandages in American hospitals, they may very well revolutionize burn care in the medical resource-depleted developing world, where desperation warmly embraces unorthodoxy.
This trend doesn't end with tilapia skin. In recent years, resource-barren medical professionals have reached back centuries and even millennia in order to find solutions to the mounting challenges posed by the modern age.
Researchers in Nottingham have replicated a Medieval eye salve that has proven capable of destroying 90 percent of antibiotic-resistant MRSA bacteria. Honey, whose medicinal value was held in high regard in antiquity, has recently been heralded by contemporary scientists for its now-proven antimicrobial properties.
Most of us would laugh off notions of leech therapy providing any true medical benefit, yet leech therapy has been firmly incorporated into cosmetic and microsurgery practices for some time now, with the FDA approving its medicinal use in 2004. Moreover, scientists are working diligently to harness the anticoagulant properties of leech saliva for use in the treatment of cardiovascular disease. In another surprising throwback to an ancient era, maggot debridement therapy has been found to be effective in the treatment of diabetes-associated wounds, those often prone to the development of gangrene.
The past has always been an inspiration for the future. We may not see fish skin bandages in US hospitals, but we've already—even if quietly—increasingly incorporated the use of other "low-tech" medical treatments in desperate situations. Striding forward with cutting-edge medical advancements has been one of our era's crowning glories, but making technologies equally accessible throughout the world is the step that's been missed—hopefully that changes. Until then, necessity will breed invention.